Rev. Ashley Horan graduated from MLTS in 2012. She serves as the Organizing Strategy Director of the UUA. We asked her about her experience at Meadville Lombard, her ministry, and her hope for the future of UU faith.
I grew up at Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, from about the age of five. So I’m almost a cradle UU, but not quite. I also went to Catholic school almost my entire life. As you can imagine, there were a couple of conflicts between what I was getting in church and what was happening in my formal education. One of the things that experience did was it made me very deeply interested in religion, and how the faith that one claims shapes one's orientation to the world. That was a thread for me for many, many years. Coming of age, when I was in early high school, was a very powerful experience for me. That was the first time that I experienced the whispers of a call to ministry. I put it aside for a long time, but by the time I finished college, I was very clear that I wanted to become a minister.
Within a few years of that, after taking a little bit of time doing a couple of other things, I ended up applying to Meadville Lombard and to Starr King. I did my undergraduate at Harvard and had taken a few classes at the Divinity School and loved them, but I felt very clearly that what I needed was a Unitarian Universalist formation rather than a multi-faith formation. I had spent my whole life growing up as a religious minority in a Catholic environment, and was really excited to be with other UUs. So I ultimately decided on Meadville. It just felt like the best fit for me, at that point.
I went through thinking I was going to become a parish minister. I'd grown up in a large church and that was what really attracted me. Through a winding series of events, right out of seminary, I ended up serving a couple of small congregations in Chicago, but I was partnered with my partner, who's also a Meadville alum. She was working as a chaplain in Chicago, so we were not mobile. We decided, ultimately, that we were going to move to Minnesota, which is where I had grown up. She ended up getting the big job. One of us had to have a real job and she got it. So, I took on this little tiny job running the Minnesota Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Alliance. It was very part-time. I think the entire budget of the organization, including my salary, was something like $38,000 a year. It was micro! And I was like, "Okay, cool. I've always been an activist. I've always been an organizer. I'll do this for a little while. And then, I'll figure out what ministry looks like for me."
Three weeks into that position, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, and the world exploded. That was the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement here in the Twin Cities. One of the leaders of that movement was Lena Gardner, who's also a Unitarian Universalist. What became very clear very quickly is that there was a big need for religious folks, particularly liberal religious folks and particularly predominantly white religious communities, to get engaged and to show up. That was the base that I was working with. Those are my people. And so, for five years, I ran the Minnesota UU Social Justice Alliance.
During that time, we had two very high-profile police murders. We had Philando Castile and Jamar Clark, who were both murdered by the police here in the Twin Cities. The water defenders’ fight at Standing Rock was happening in our backyard. We were the major metro area that was right nearby. We grew the organization a lot while I was there, and had really an outsized impact and shifted in many ways what state action networks were doing in that time. I was a part of a small group of folks within the state action networks that were shifting away from the legislative advocacy model, toward doing more partnership and grassroots organizing.
By the time I had finished five years, I felt pretty ready to be done with that particular position. I gave my notice before I actually saw the posting at the Unitarian Universalist Association. I put my hat in the ring and I thought, "Okay, cool. Maybe this will happen. Maybe it won't." I ended up being hired as the Organizing Strategy Director at the UUA. I came in in the August of 2019, at a moment when we were six months away from a pandemic happening and we were heading into the elections of 2020. That’s how I ended up where I am now.
I am one of the last two students to graduate from the residential Meadville Lombard Theological School program. I started in 2008. During my time there, they were just beginning to pilot the new model, the TouchPoint model. We, in some ways, were the guinea pigs for that because they were trying to launch it with an in-person cohort, as well as some of the distance students. There were some rocky pieces about that. It was clear that that was a moment when Meadville Lombard was trying to shift toward educating ministers to be of the world and not just in the world. It was a moment to really think deeply about what the relationship between the church and the community is. I was in the first iteration of what has now become the community studies program.
I worked at a little nonprofit agency in Back of the Yards in Chicago. Because I had a fairly significant background in intercultural movement organizing specifically, there wasn't a whole lot of that initial reaction that was like, “wow, I'm part of a different culture” for me. It was more about, “what does it mean to be in deep relationship with communities that look different, that have different values, different religious backgrounds, different language? What does it mean to be doing that work as a religious leader? What does it look like to be thinking about the way to build resilience and power, not as a discrete unit of a congregation, but as a part of a much broader movement?” I do think that that has shaped me. It certainly gave me the space to think about a lot of those types of questions that have deeply informed my ministry.
As the Organizing Strategy Director at the UUA, I lead the team that holds all of the outward-facing work of the Unitarian Universalists Association. So that is all under the banner now of Side with Love and includes our four intersectional justice priority issues and the campaigns that are associated with them. Climate Justice; LGBTQ / Gender / Reproductive Justice Ministries; Love Resists, which is our decriminalization campaign; and UU the Vote, which is our democracy and electoral justice campaign. Those reflect the four intersectional justice priorities of the UUA and Side with Love is the banner under which all of that happens. Side with Love is like our baseball franchise. We're playing for wins over the long term. We put on different uniforms when we go and play in different places, and we have different tactics depending on the teams that we're playing and the fields we're on. But whenever we show up as Unitarian Universalists and take action in alignment with our values, we are siding with love.
That's actually kind of a shift from the way that things have been. When I came in, President Susan Frederick Gray had recently completed an assessment of the justice work of the association and had concluded that it was rather scattered and siloed. There were campaigns and issues that were all over the place, and she felt we really needed to unite it with an organizing strategy. The word “organizing” was a new framework for the UUA. While there had certainly been organizers, the commitment of the association to focus on organizing as the strategy and approach to our justice work was new.
Since I've been in that role, for almost three years now, we have really worked to build an infrastructure that allows us to support UU individuals, congregations, and organizations to gain skills, to gain spiritual and political grounding, and to build relationships on the local and national level to work for justice and to try and build a world in which all of us are free and thriving. That’s what we try to do. My team has grown a lot. I came in and there were four of us and now we are about to be 12, as we hire our last UU the Vote campaign staffer for this season. UU the Vote was our first experiment, campaign-wise, to see what would happen when we fully resourced that approach. And we had 5,000 volunteers from 450 congregations who contacted 3 million voters in 2020. We have an outsize impact when we decide we want to be organized and work in conjunction with each other and with partners.
I care about our people showing up in the world in ways that are powerful and impactful. My vision for Unitarian Universalism broadly is that I want Unitarian Universalists to be politically and spiritually grounded, to be skilled, and to be connected enough so that we are able to be mobilized in relationship when the world needs us. It turns out that the world needs us all the time! I think one of the shadow sides of our congregational polity is that we haven't always played well with others. Our congregations can sometimes be divorced from each other, from local communities, and I think exceptionalism certainly doesn't serve us. When we have the opportunity to do deep partnership work, whether it's with other UU congregations or with local community partners, our folks can show up.
We are known as the "love people," the people in the yellow shirts. What I care about is our people having the strategy and the political grounding so that we show up and we're not a burden on any frontline community. Obviously, there's diversity among Unitarian Universalists, but we are predominantly and structurally white middle-class and upper-middle-class and educated. We bring some of that culture with us wherever we go. I want our people to be able to show up and be of use, be of service. I want us to make an offering and also be able to respond to an ask. In order to do that for the long haul, we need to be spiritually grounded. So I want our congregations to be places that are feeding the spirits of our people that are making offerings of spiritual nourishment to the world beyond their walls.
I think these last two years of pandemic have shown us that the future of congregational life is not in-person Sunday morning services. I think that certainly it involves remote offerings, but it also involves thinking of ourselves as people who congregate, not just in our own buildings, but out in the world. What does it mean for us to show up in service? What does it mean for us to show up and take direct action together? What does it mean for us to offer our resources (human, infrastructural, financial) in partnership with the world? The heart of Unitarian Universalism is there and people are waiting for an invitation. When that invitation is extended, we can show up in deeply powerful ways.
Rev. Ashley Horan is the Organizing Strategy Director of the UUA, where she works with a team of faithful organizers and movement builders to shape the justice work of Unitarian Universalism to be spiritually grounded and politically effective. Prior to this role, Ashley served for five years as the Executive Director of MUUSJA (the Minnesota UU Social Justice Alliance), and for seven years as core staff with the Beloved Conversations program. She lives in Minneapolis with her partner, Rev. Karen Hutt, MDiv '03, and their children.